HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – For months there has been a battle between the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission and ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft.
The PTC has even set up sting operations to issue multiple tickets for Uber and Lyft drivers, saying they are working illegally in the county. The PTC claims it’s all about rider safety, that ride-hailing drivers need to have background checks that include fingerprint verification. They also point to insurance policies and vehicle inspections.
Uber and Lyft have sued the PTC, and the PTC has tried for months to work out a compromise.
New emails obtained by News Channel 8 appear to show a very close relationship between Kyle Cockream, the executive director of the PTC, and leaders of the cab companies who he is charged with regulating.
In April Cockream traveled to Palm Beach County to speak to that county commission in favor of fingerprint background checks and the dangers of having ride-hailing drivers who have not gone through the extensive background investigations.
When News Channel 8 first investigated the trip, Cockream claimed he was on a family vacation and a friend happened to ask him to stop by the commission meeting to speak on the issue.
The emails obtained by News Channel 8 show Cockream discussed his trip with leaders of several cab companies. The cab company leaders even supplied him with information to discuss in front of the commission.
PTC Chairman and County Commissioner Victor Crist says Cockream misled him about the purpose of his visit to Palm Beach in April. “When I spoke to Mr. Cockream about this very issue, he assured me the same, that it was a vacation, a family vacation, and that it was a last-minute phone call when he was on the beach. Now to read these emails and to learn otherwise is shocking. It’s shocking to see that he would openly and outwardly mislead the public but most of all our board and me as the chairman,” Crist said.
Cockream claims he was not told what to say at the meeting by the cab companies. “The emails you are referencing are being taken out of context. I was copied on some emails the week before the meeting as part of general industry information sharing before I was even asked to speak. The weekend before the meeting I was asked to speak, and I agreed since I was already in Juno Beach, close to West Palm Beach. I was already in the area on a personal trip,” Cockream said in a written statement to News Channel 8.
Other emails reveal Cockream used cab drivers in the sting operations to set up Uber and Lyft drivers for the hefty fines. Crist believes this action crossed a line.
“You know, the perception is very bad. It gives the perception that the best practices were not followed, that the regulatory agency was operating far too close and in concert with some of the companies that it regulates,” said Crist, who is now calling for an independent investigation into Cockream’s actions.
In response to questions about the sting operation, Cockreams claimed it was within normal practices. “The PTC has traditionally used paid individuals as shoppers for stings, and this was a one-time project to try using volunteers. In law enforcement, it’s a common practice to work with law-abiding companies and individuals in enforcement efforts. That said, we at the PTC need to be sensitive to how things could be perceived by the public, and we would not conduct an operation in this way again, with this in mind,” he said.
State Senator Jeff Brandes believes the emails and the choices for the sting operation show much more. “I think there is collusion all throughout this process,” Brandes said.
Brandes has called for the PTC to be abolished. “Essentially the regulated industry has taken over its regulator. I mean the taxi cabs absolutely control the PTC and everybody should know that. We’ve known it for years,” Brandes said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and State Represenatitive Dana Young have also called for the end of the PTC.